American Civil War: The Battle of Vicksburg

This weekend, 160 years ago, America was in the midst of its Civil War. On July 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln received word of two great victories by the United States Army. The first was the better-known battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The other the more obscure, but perhaps more strategically important, seige of Vicksburg, Mississippi. In remembrance of these two engagements, today I have written about Vicksburg. My post about Gettysburg will follow on Monday.

The Battle of Vicksburg was fought from May 18 to July 4, 1863, in Warren County, Mississippi. The United States Army was commanded by Major General Ulysses S. Grant, and the Confederate Army was led by Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton.

Perched atop a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was a fortress city that controlled all river traffic and was dubbed the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” Its possession was vital to both Confederate and Union strategies. President Abraham Lincoln once remarked, “Vicksburg is the key,” acknowledging its role as the critical artery to the Confederacy’s western territories.

Before the siege, a series of attempts by the Union army to capture Vicksburg had met with failure. Determined to seize control, Grant employed an audacious and unconventional strategy. Instead of attacking Vicksburg directly, he decided to cut off the city, starve it into submission, and then attack. This approach would entail moving his troops south of the city, crossing the Mississippi, then turning north and laying siege.

In executing the plan, Grant’s troops marched south along the west bank of the river. With the assistance of Admiral David D. Porter’s gunboats, they crossed the river south of Vicksburg at Bruinsburg, fought a series of battles in the hinterlands, and then turned to encircle the city. By May 18, 1863, Vicksburg was entirely surrounded.

The battle was less an encounter of armies than a test of endurance, as the Confederates were besieged inside the fortress city for 47 days. Grant, despite his initial assault being repelled, wisely reverted to a siege strategy, capitalizing on his advantage of superior numbers and supplies. As food and resources dwindled, the Confederates faced increasing hardship, exacerbated by continuous bombardment from Union artillery and naval guns.

On July 4, 1863, a starved and exhausted Confederate force under Pemberton surrendered. It was a momentous victory for the Union, coinciding with the Union’s success at Gettysburg, and led to celebrations across the North.

The consequences of the Battle of Vicksburg were significant in the broader context of the Civil War. First, the victory effectively split the Confederacy in two, severing the Trans-Mississippi West from the rest of the South. This substantially undermined the Confederacy’s capacity to sustain its forces with men and material, thereby weakening their overall war effort. Second, the victory bolstered the Northern public’s morale, especially in conjunction with the triumph at Gettysburg.

Most importantly, the victory at Vicksburg established Grant’s reputation as the North’s most capable general, leading to his appointment as General-in-Chief of all Union armies in March 1864. His subsequent strategy of total warfare eventually brought the Confederacy to its knees.

The Union victory in the Battle of Vicksburg had profound strategic consequences which are overlooked or underappreciated in how the history of the Civil War has been told through the years.